With the forest fire season now at its end, B.C. has escaped a hot and dry summer relatively unscathed.
Aside from a few persistent wildfires in the northeast corner of the province and one that destroyed homes near Peachland, there wasn't much damage done. According to John Betts, executive director of the Western Silvicultural Contractors Association, we should consider ourselves lucky.
With so many of the Interior region's lodgepole pine trees now dead after years of being attacked by the mountain pine beetle, chances are great for some ferocious fires considering how much combustible fuel has collected on the forest floor.
"The Wildfire Management branch warned the [Special Committee on Timber Supply] that the kinds of forest fires we are going to start seeing are fires they can do very little about when they are in full flight," said Betts.
"They are so intense and so severe and capable of expanding rapidly because of the conditions of the landscape. They not only put in jeopardy the wood that's been killed already but [also] the existing inventory of standing timber.
"We've moved through trying to manage the actual beetle attack and we lost, so there will have to be activity on the landscape to restore it. The public dollars devoted to that has been very small and I'm hoping to see that change. Unfortunately it will be driven by catastrophes like more homes burned up. This was not a very active forest fire season. Think about what would have happened if the warm weather hit us in June. You wouldn't be able to see the sun in this province for wildfire smoke."
The mountain pine beetle epidemic was first detected in 1994 in Tweedsmuir provincial park, 250 kilometres southwest of Prince George, but there were several other large stands of lodgepole pine in the southern and north-central B.C. also affected at that time. Years of mild winters and an abundance of mature pine forests allowed the beetles to thrive.
The infestation was the largest of its kind ever in Canada, affecting nearly 8.5 million hectares in north and central B.C., an area larger than New Brunswick. A B.C. government report estimated 53 per cent of the region's total pine volume - 710 million cubic metres -- has been killed and by 2017 that number will climb to 58 per cent. Beetles are now attacking trees in the Okanagan region and Alberta.
Betts says action is needed to lessen the fire risk on already-stressed forests by such practices as selective logging to create fire breaks or planting more deciduous tree stands.
"The government is going to have to start getting ahead of the consequences of the mountain pine beetle, which are more fires, more problems with bugs and blight, flooding and water quality," said Betts. "We need to bust up that landscape and create different species and different stand ages so the landscape can't carry huge fires like it can now."
The Special Committee on Timber Supply report released in mid-August identified the need for increased logging in the central Interior to help reduce the fire risk the now-dead trees pose, and that could bode well for treeplanters and thinners.
Hampton Affiliates announced on Sept. 17 its intention to rebuild its Babine Forest Products sawmill in Burns Lake, which was destroyed in a January explosion and fire that killed two men and injured 19 others. To create enough of a timber supply, the company will be allowed to log areas of unproductive forest that had previously been off-limits for loggers.
Betts said there will have to be continued efforts to find markets for the byproducts of milling and promote growth in the bioenergy sectors to use the dead pine and other waste wood as alternate heat sources.
The majority of treeplanting in B.C. has focused on replanting areas logged by contractors and only a small percentage of the provincial volume -- about 10 million to 15 million trees -- was planted last year to replace trees killed by pine beetles. Betts said the province and its 6,000 treeplanters needs to be planting 200 million trees every year, and even at that rate it would take 10 years just to replace the beetle kill.
Loggers are required by law to replant harvested timber and manage the forests until they become viable. The provincial Forests for Tomorrow beetle management reforestation program, which is mainly funded through industry timber sales, provides $225 million per year, mostly for finding appropriate areas for replanting, surveying, site-preparing and forest maintenance. The B.C. government budgets $34.5 million annually to replant beetle-impacted areas. The program will pay for 20 million trees to be planted annually for the next five years.
In 2005, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced $1 billion in federal funding over a 10-year period to address the pine beetle devastation, but according to the treeplanters, not much of that is being spent on ground operations.
Spectrum Resource Group Inc., co-owner Crawford Young says the public is largely unaware of the treeplanting industry's inability to meet the demand of replacing dead pine forests to create vibrant forests for future generations.
"Everybody thinks that treeplanting must be through the roof, and it really has stayed fairly flat," said Young. "We all need to be vigilant that the government and forest companies are doing what they need to do. In the longterm, if the forests are sick, then we'll all suffer."
With provincial and federal budgets being cut back, Young said it's easier for governments to put reforestation on the backburner when they can gain more votes funding roads, hospitals or settling labour disputes. But still, he figures the feds are not providing enough to stimulate an industry ravaged by beetles, free trade disputes, the collapse of the U.S. housing market, and the resultant closures of 17 B.C. sawmills since 2005.
"I know the people in the forest industry and even the people in [the B.C.] government are passionate about wanting to spend more money on the forests, it's just not possible, the pie is only so big," said Young.
"The feds pledged a billion dollars and that has somehow been forgotten. But if this was an ice storm in Quebec, or if it was a bit more of a glamourous natural disaster, there might be other federal funding. But if it's a slow death, like the mountain pine beetle has been, it doesn't seem to attract federal funding. It shouldn't be left upon the citizens of B.C. to tackle this one."
Tuesday: Hope on the horizon for silviculture contractors